Why do cats love catnip?


Welcome to our exploration of the fascinating world of cats and catnip! Ever wondered why your furry friend goes crazy for this aromatic herb? Discover the science behind their love for catnip, delve into its benefits and potential risks, and learn how to use it responsibly for a joyfully entertained feline.

Cats are often drawn to catnip due to the sense of pleasure it induces. At its core, it simply makes them feel good. When your feline friend interacts with this herb – through licking, rubbing, or even just sniffing – nepetalactone, the active component in catnip, gets released. This elicits a state of euphoria in the cat. The exact reason for this response is still a topic of scientific exploration, but it’s widely hypothesized that cats react to nepetalactone similarly to how they would respond to certain pheromones.

This article offers insights into this intriguing aspect of cat behaviour. Whether you’re a long-time cat parent or a curious newbie, understanding the catnip effect can boost your bond with your beloved feline.

Let’s unravel the mystery!


Cats are instinctual predators, a trait inherited from their wild descendants. Their hunting behaviour is often showcased in daily activities, even when not driven by their appetite. Their ability to pounce, stalk and engage in simulated fights demonstrate this predatory instinct. Stimulated by moving objects, they can switch from being seemingly disinterested (most of the time…lol) to laser-focused at the flick of a switch. These behaviours provide mental stimulation, physical exercise and fulfill their inherent prey drive. It’s crucial to provide house cats with outlets for these instincts, such as toys or interactive play, to maintain their wellbeing and prevent potential behavioral issues.

The Role of Scent in Cats

Scent plays a major role in a cat’s world as it’s integral to their communication, territory marking, and hunting behaviours. Cats have a highly-developed sense of smell – much superior to humans – which they use to gather information about their environment.

Cats mark their territory by releasing pheromones from various glands located on their cheeks, paws and base of the tail. This is why they rub against objects, scratch surfaces or spray urine – they are leaving scent markers that communicate ‘ownership’ and provide a sense of familiarity and security. In the context of hunting, scent helps cats locate their prey, even in the dark. It also allows them to identify individual animals and detect whether potential prey or another cat is nearby.

Overall, scent is a key sensory tool in a cat’s world, deeply ingrained in their social, territorial, and predatory behaviours.

Combined, these Two Behaviours + Catnip = Feline Euphoria (70% of the time!)


Catnip, scientifically known as Nepeta cataria, is a type of herb from the mint family that grows in many parts of the world, including North America and Europe. This herb produces an essential oil called ;nepetalactone. When a cat smells this oil, it stimulates special receptors in their nose that trigger various reactions, such as rubbing, rolling, purring and hyperactivity, which are part of their predatory play sequence. It’s kind of like a super fun toy to them!


What does catnip do to cats? It’s believed that when a cat inhales catnip, the nepetalactone molecules bind to olfactory receptors in the nasal passage. This activates sensory neurons, which then send signals to the olfactory bulb in the brain. The primary active compound – nepetalactone – is thought to mimic a cat’s natural ‘happy’ pheromones.

These signals are then relayed to separate areas of the brain including:

  • Amygdala: The part of the cat’s brain that helps control emotions and how they react to certain situations. Think of it like the brain’s alarm system – it tells them when they should be scared, happy or even relaxed.
  • Hypothalamus: This part of the brain is a small but super important, as it that acts like a command center for cats. It’s responsible for maintaining their body’s internal balance, or ‘homeostasis’. This includes controlling things like body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleep and even feelings of stress. Think of it as the brain’s thermostat and alarm clock all rolled into one.

These parts of the brain are responsible for behaviours related to hunting and playing, as well as emotions. The effects vary, but the sensory stimulation that catnip provides can encourage multiple effects including:

  • Hyperactivity: Many cats become hyperactive, zipping around and engaging in play more than usual.
  • Sniffing: Cats often start by intensely inhaling the catnip.
  • Rubbing and Rolling: Cats may rub their bodies on the catnip or roll in it, a behaviour often associated with feline mating rituals.
  • Drooling: Some cats may salivate while under the influence of catnip.
  • Leaping/Jumping: Catnip can prompt a frisky state, leading cats to jump or leap around.
  • Aggression: In some cases, cats may show signs of hostility, such as hissing or growling, especially if they feel their catnip is being threatened.
  • Purring and Vocalization: Cats may purr loudly and produce other unique vocal stylings.

These behaviors typically last for 10-15 minutes, after which cats become temporarily immune to the effects of catnip for about 30 minutes.

Not all cats respond to catnip due to genetic factors – this sensitivity is inherited and about 30% of all cats are unaffected. Also, kittens and older cats are also less likely to react to catnip. The science is still relatively unclear, but kittens don’t fully develop the sensory systems or brain function until about 3 months of age. Older cats will still react to catnip, but a decline in sensory responsiveness or activity levels as they age may reduce sensitivity to certain stimuli.

While considerable progress has been made in understanding how catnip affects cats, it cannot be said that the science is entirely settled. We do know is that the nepetalactone in catnip activates receptors in a cat’s nose, leading to a range of behavioural responses. However, the precise mechanisms behind this process, and why these responses occur in some cats and not others, is not fully understood.



Catnip can provide a range of positive effects for cats, including:

  • Entertainment and Amusement: Cats often exhibit playful – and entertaining – interactions when exposed to catnip, such as rolling, leaping and pouncing. More importantly, they keep the cats mentally stimulated, guarding against boredom which can lead to undesirable behaviours.
  • Physical Health and Exercise: The hyperactivity resulting from inhaling catnip can serve as a form of exercise for indoor cats, providing them a burst of physical activity. This helps maintain a healthy weight and promotes overall physical health.
  • Stress and Anxiety Relief: Catnip can potentially act as a form of stress relief for cats. The euphoria-like state it induces may help ease anxiety and stress. It can also encourage shy or anxious cats to engage in play, promoting socialization.
  • Training Tool: Catnip can be a useful tool when attempting to train your cat. It can be used to draw cats towards scratching posts or away from undesired areas, like furniture.

Reasons Against Using Catnip:

  • Potential Aggression: Some cats may get overly excited or even aggressive under the influence of catnip. This could potentially be an issue in multi-cat households.
  • Gastrointestinal Distress: While usually safe, if a cat consumes too much catnip, it can lead to vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Desensitization: Overly-frequent exposure to catnip may lead to desensitization, meaning it could diminish its effectiveness over time.
  • Allergic Reactions: Although rare, some cats may have an allergic reaction to catnip, leading to symptoms like redness, swelling or breathing difficulties.

While there are some potential negatives, most professionals in the veterinary community agree that occasional, monitored use of catnip is safe and can be a beneficial enrichment tool. It’s always advisable to introduce it slowly and observe your cat’s individual response.


The term ‘high’ is typically used to describe the altered state of consciousness experienced by humans after consuming certain drugs. In this context, it’s not entirely accurate to say that cats get ‘high’ on catnip, even if they exhibit stoner-like behaviours. However, the effects of catnip on cats can be fairly similar to a human’s response to certain psychoactive substances. Cats under the influence of catnip appear to be reacting to a heightened state of sensory pleasure rather than experiencing altered perceptions of reality.


Catnip can be incorporated into various aspects of a cat’s life to promote enrichment, exercise and positive behaviour.

How? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Toys: Many cat toys come pre-stuffed with catnip. If not, catnip can be purchased and sprinkled into a refillable toy. Toys spiked with catnip often provoke vigorous play, which is great for exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Scratching Posts: Catnip can be rubbed or sprayed onto scratching posts to encourage cats to use them. This can be particularly useful when you first introduce a scratching post, as the scent can entice them to scratch there instead of your furniture.
  • Training: Sprinkle or spray a bit of catnip on areas you want your cat to use, such as a new bed or carrier. This could make the area more appealing to them.

For the 30% of cats that don’t respond to catnip or for pet parents seeking variety, there are several catnip alternatives:

  • Silver Vine: Also known as matatabi, it’s a plant native to Japan and China. Studies show that many cats who don’t respond to catnip do respond to silver vine.
  • Tatarian Honeysuckle: Some cat toys are made with the wood from this plant. While not all cats respond to it, those that do seem to enjoy it as much as catnip.
  • Valerian Root and Lemongrass: Similar to catnip, some cats positively react to these herbs. They can be found in various forms such as sprays or inside toys.
  • Interactive Toys: Toys that move or make noise can stimulate a cat’s predatory instinct, providing an arousal response similar to that induced by catnip.
  • Food Puzzles: These can provide mental stimulation and physical exercise, similar to catnip, but with the added benefit of portion-controlled feeding.

The first three plant-based items are generally considered safe for cats in moderation. Each can produce mild side effects if consumed in large quantities. Just like with catnip, introduce these alternatives slowly and always monitor your cat’s response to them.


As we untangle the catnip mystery, it’s clear that this herb isn’t just a feline fanciful fad but a key player in cat behaviour. Understanding the science behind your cat’s love for catnip, acknowledging its benefits and potential risks and responsibly incorporating it into your cat’s life can lead to a happier, healthier and more enriched kitty.

Whether your cat is part of the catnip fan club or not, getting to know these characteristics about your furry friend will only strengthen your bond.